Category Archives: Author Q&A

Turning Blue – Benjamin Myers

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The first in a detective series marketed as folk crime, Turning Blue is a slight departure for Myers.  He’s never written outright crime before.  However, this is definitely not a police procedural, it is more rural crime noir with flawed but decent heroes at its heart.

Obsessive and antisocial Detective Brindle and ex-hedonist journalist Mace form an unlikely alliance to uncover why a local teenager has mysteriously disappeared.  They expose so much more than a run of the mill missing persons case.  In a work where art often imitates recent real life news stories and police investigations which have shocked the British public, Brindle and Mace wade through sleaze, establishment corruption and cover ups involving the police, close knit silent communities, a grotesque character who seems to be a mash up of Jimmy Saville, Jonathan King and Stewart Hall and a revolting, disturbing loner pig farmer whose behaviour as the story progresses goes from the bizarre and creepy to alarming and sinister.  His pathetic existence invades every page cultivating a feeling of unease from the beginning.

It’s easy to compare Ben Myers’ writing to the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Derek Raymond or James Ellroy – I’ve done it myself before.  Here’s another comparison: There’s a touch of the David Peace Red Riding about Myers’ latest offering; hard Northern men, institutional corruption, sleaze and violence in small, overlooked communities.  Such comparisons are useful to allow those who’ve never come across his books to get a flavour of what to expect, but also slightly erroneous.  Ben Myers’ writing is difficult to define or pigeon hole.  He seems unsure himself of how this new book should be described.  But does it matter?  Do I need to compare it to other work?  Do I need to identify it as writing of a particular genre?  I don’t think so.

Myers has his own style, he is an exciting writer of extraordinary  talent with an ability to weave heart-breaking tales about marginalised communities and individuals with brutal, bleak and stomach-wrenching stories into the evocative tapestry of a landscape setting.  This creates a dichotomy for the reader; admiration for the perceptive descriptions and economy of writing mixed with feelings of revulsion at the violence and horror. Myers has never been for the faint-hearted or easily offended and Turning Blue is no different to its two predecessors in that respect.  It is visceral.  Human beings can be sick, we just don’t like admitting it to ourselves and Myers continues to make no apology for holding the mirror steady so we can’t avoid the myriad of vileness and the depths some of us can stoop to.  This is what I love; honesty in fiction.  I’m pretty sure the stuff Myers writes about in Turning Blue does/has happened, no matter how uncomfortable that makes me feel.

The outdoors is the scaffolding on which Myers overlays the plots of all his recent fiction and Turning Blue continues that trend.  The countryside sometimes feels like an afterthought in some “nature” writing, but Myers has always used it to represent emotion and propel a plot onwards.  In Pig Iron the landscape provided solace and refuge (and there is a lovely nod to John John Wisdom’s green cathedral with its mention in Turning Blue), in Beastings it was a menacing means of escape, in this book, the Yorkshire countryside is brooding, an irritant obstructing the investigation.  It is harsh and bleak, wet or snowbound and difficult to navigate if you are not from the “Hamlet”.  You know the ancient sod and dirt will triumphantly remain long after these characters are dead and buried.  It is the constant.

I am continually excited and blown away by Myers’ awesome writing.  I swallowed down this book with the thirst of the seriously dehydrated.  I suggest you all get the drinks in as soon as you can because Myers is the landlord serving up intoxicating fiction.

Thanks to Ben and Moth Publishing for sending me a review copy and the lovely tin of moss, wire and plastic pig.

Other Ben Myers stuff to read on here:

Q&A with Ben Myers author of Pig Iron

Beastings by Benjamin Myers

Pig Iron – Benjamin Myers

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Q&A with Ben Myers author of Pig Iron

My favourite new book of last year was Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers.  It’s special to me because it evoked such an emotional response when I wasn’t expecting it to.  I still think about it now, many months after first reading it.  It is an earthy book, a book of the land and nature.  It gets under your skin and your fingernails (if you know what I mean).  I was  pleased when my friend Trueblood chose it for her bookclub earlier this year and I asked Ben some questions to help with their discussion.  His answers form the majority of this Q&A (with his permission, of course), last week I asked him some further questions about his forthcoming work.  Here’s what he had to say:

Please give me a short biography?

I was born in 1976. I grew up on a nice sedate, lower middle class estate in the north-east of England. I remember neat lawns, the miner’s strike, summer holidays, spirited people. A sense of safety in the world. I was and still am close to my family. At the age of 10 my grandfather killed himself then at 11 I was seriously ill and had a kidney removed (AFH: weirdly, we have this in common). That was my first awareness that life is fragile.

My childhood was a happy one, though I hated school. In my teens I played in bands, voraciously read fiction, took drugs, met girls. I went to university and studied literature. At the same time I started writing for the now defunct Melody Maker. I interviewed pop stars. After graduating with a low-level degree from a provincial new university I became their staff writer and moved into a squatted building in South London. From 1996 I travelled widely with bands on various rock missions as the paper’s staff writer, and wrote novels in my spare time. I barely slept. In 1999 I went freelance and embarked upon many more years writing for many magazines.  I spent a lot of time in cold dressing rooms and strange hotels across Europe and America….

Fiction was always my first love though and I published a lot of stories and poems in small press journals and anthologies during this time. I also had many attempts at writing novels. I have a stockpile of unpublished works.

In 2001 I vomited blood on a plane from Los Angeles and stopped drinking. Soon afterwards I began to concentrate seriously on fiction, and my first novel The Book Of Fuck documented this time. From 2003-2006 I published a series of non-fiction music books and also co-ran a self-financed record label. In 2009 I moved back up north, to Calderdale, West Yorkshire where I have thrown myself into writing novels with a new-found intensity that borders on the dangerously obsessed.

Pig Iron is a book about travelling communities, what research did you
have to do?

pig iron

I did research the old-fashioned way, really: by reading books. But also talking to people, being told anecdotes, watching documentaries, reading old press cuttings.  It’s a subject I was interested in long before I actually decided to write a novel set in that community.

John John Wisdom feels more at home outdoors than anywhere else. What about you?  Do you take inspiration from your natural surroundings and landscapes nearby?

Oh, definitely. As a child I climbed up lots of mountains and now every day I try and walk in the woods or up hills or across the moors. Even just for a few minutes. I lived in London for 12 years and that was the thing I struggled with most – the lack of open space and fresh air. I like to watch the season’s change, observe bird and animals and plant-life. I actually know very little about the theoretical/technical side of nature – the science of it, the naming of species and so forth – but instead still feel an emotional response. I like being around animals. I like watching their behaviour and habits. I like weather. I like rain, snow and sunshine. I like to exhaust myself in order to prevent my brain from running away with itself. It’s true what they say. Fresh air: it’s good for you.

The book is set in an area deeply affected by Thatcher’s policies that depressed the local mining industry. Is your book a metaphor for the social inequalities in today’s Tory Britain?

It was only after the book came out and a Guardian reviewer said the same thing that I thought that, yes, perhaps it is. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to get that point across but sub-consciously I think the book does work as a metaphor for Thatcher’s extreme prejudice against The North as a whole, and serves as an outlet for my anger at what she did – and what Cameron and co are doing now. Because in recession and/or under the Conservatives, it seems as if the poor and marginalised are always the first to be demonised and further disenfranchised. It’s happening again now with the unemployed, the disabled, the foreign nationals. After 15 years of paying tax I tried to sign on for a brief period last year when there was no freelance work and was effectively told, in the nicest terms, to piss off.

The book contains several violent scenes yet the end is quiet and calm did you consider a more bloodthirsty ending?

Yes. I considered having a much more violent showdown at the end with John-John wreaking revenge and retribution on his adversaries, but that seemed a clichéd cop-out too reminiscent of spaghetti western films. I wanted to show him as someone who has advanced beyond his background and disadvantaged upbringing, and who has ultimately become a better man than anyone else in his small world. He is actually the only moral person in the entire novel, and I wanted to reinforce that through the ending.

I’ve seen one commentator compare the writing in Pig Iron to Salinger and Golding. Do you see this as a “coming of age” novel?

I see it as a novel about consequences. Cause and effect. And also about man’s animalistic impulses – how violence has not yet evolved out of us as a species. I suppose in that sense, thematically at least, it could be seen as similar to Lord Of The
Flies.

The narrative in Pig Iron is sort of stream of consciousness, why did you chose this style and how does it help the tone of the book?

I never really considered it stream of consciousness as to me that suggests a sort of free-flowing, spontaneous and often disconnected / meandering type of prose, whereas Pig Iron was quite heavily re-written a number of times and the sentences pared down. But, yes, it is certainly written from inside the minds of its two narrators.  Hopefully this style gives a heightened emotion and a different sense of perspective that a third person narrative would provide.

imgres-1imgres-2I’ve not read your other books, but I imagine “The Book of Fuck” to have autobiographical elements and Richard (a fictionalisation of the disappearance of Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers) is about a world you know well so what parts of you can we find in Pig Iron?

 I think John-John’s love of nature, his isolationist aspect and disillusionment with the horrible ways in which some people treat one another, are essentially me. Like him I abhor violence too.

You’ve been reviewing a lot of music and interviewing musicians recently, is this influencing your current fiction writing much?

I’ve done paid freelance music journalism since 1996 – aside from doing copywriting in the advertising world it’s the only job I’ve had – so the two of always gone hand in hand really. Last year was quiet but over the past few months I’ve been back out there interviewing more bands than ever. I get about fifty press releases for new albums every day. Tonnes of stuff. More music than I can keep up with. I think I’ve interviewed eighteen bands these past three months, and reviewed a lot more music.

I like the discipline and economy of journalism – the quick turnarounds, the limited word counts. And I like talking to rock and pop stars. I listen to a lot of dark music which possibly infiltrates my fiction. My previous novel Richard was completely in that world but I don’t think writing about music is particularly influencing my current/future stuff at all. That said, I have been working on a novel which I described to someone as being like “if DH Lawrence made death metal”. It’s not, but I liked the sound of that.

What made you first decide to write novels and how does it differ to journalism?

I have been in love with literature all my life and being a writer is all I have ever wanted to do. Journalism was a good way to learn how to write, and to just about make a living while doing so. Also, I’m terrible with authority so self employment seemed like a good option. How does it differ to journalism? In the obvious way really. Fiction is fantasy, escape, kingdom-building, playing God – whereas with journalism you are bound by facts and at the mercy of your editors and each magazine’s differing house style. I think both feed the other.

I’ve read about the literary movement called Brutalists that you started a few years ago with some other writers.  Pig Iron has the raw honesty the movement talks about.  Could your book have been published by a large/corporate publisher? How has it been received? Has publishing changed since you started the movement?

I love reading, writing and books but I don’t much like the mainstream publishing world. I’ve been published by tiny publishers and huge publishers and feel it is easy to get lost, overlooked on a big publisher – if you can even get a foot in the door in the first place. The mainstream industry has tried and tested ways of doing things and if you or your writing doesn’t fit squarely into those methods then it is doubly tough. Pig Iron was only read by one corporate publisher who turned it down because “stories set in Northern towns tend not to sell” but fortunately Bluemoose had the guts to publish it.

The publishing world is quite Oxbridge and for all the recent technological advancements doesn’t really change that much. They want Hot New Things. They want novels that Tell Us Something. They want Narrative Arcs and Marketable Story Hooks. None of the other big publishers would even read Pig Iron. Yet still: it is by far my best received book and I currently get a few emails, messages and online reviews each week from readers who have reacted positively. It was runner-up in The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. I’ve heard from farmers, oil rig workers, hairdressers, prison officers, bare knuckle fighters, travellers, academics. It is a key text on a creative writing MA at a London university and has been entered for various prizes by lecturers.

I sleep on a bed of rejection letters. I light fires with them – but I’m not bitter about it. My attitude is to ignore the publishing world, just keep writing and hopefully everything will work out in the end. The business ebbs and flows but the written word is immortal!

You wrote a post on your blog last year called “2012: A year in writing” which made life as a writer sound very unglamorous. What keeps you going?

I love my life. I love writing. I’m always broke and often fraught with financial concerns, and have to skimp on many things to survive, like clothes and food and entertainment, but I feel a great sense of freedom that is worth more than any money. Besides…writing. It’s not exactly back-breaking is it? Really it’s a luxury.

What’s your next novel about and what else are you working on?

I’ve written two novels. One is about a young girl who abducts a baby that has been placed in her care and goes on the run in Cumbria, pursued by a sadistic priest. The other is about a vile pig farmer who kills a girl then falls in love with her. that one is set in the remotest corner of the Yorkshire Dales. Along with Pig Iron they collectively form a very loose trilogy of rural noir. Folk fiction.

(Asked last week, so slight overlap with the answer above) I know you’ve got a couple of unpublished novels under your belt at the moment, what else are you working on right now?

As far as I can tell I have a new novel coming out in 2014. It is set in Cumbria and the main protagonist is female, which is a first for me. It also features a priest. And a wooden leg. Then I am about to start re-writing another novel – the “if-DH-Lawrence-made-death metal-but-not-really” one. It’s by far the darkest and most disturbing work I’ve written. I read a bit recently and felt ill. I actually offended myself.

You recently announced on your blog and twitter that you have written a novella to be published by Galley Beggar Press and available in the summer. What can you tell me about it?

It is a novella, but there is no prose in it – only dialogue. So in a way it’s a play,but there are no stage directions, so it’s not. It’s very much a novella. It’s called Snorri & Frosti and is about everything else I tend to write about really – life and death. It concerns two brothers who live in a log cabin in the mountains in an unnamed northern European country. They are old. It is snowing. One of them has a headache. I would say it is slightly influenced by Beckett but I’ve never actually read his work nor seen it performed. The set-up is maybe a little like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Well, there’s three acts anyway.

How is writing a novella different from writing a novel – or isn’t it?

I suppose it’s the difference between a sprint and a marathon. Snorri & Frosti was written in a short, intense burst in sub-zero conditions. The pace of a novella is much easier to maintain, whereas perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel is keeping focused on the story and the tone for months or years at a time.

You told me it was slightly too long to be a short story. When does a short story become a novella?

The eternal question. Who knows, really? I don’t think there is a rule-book, or if there is I’d rather not see it. I’d say 10,000 words is about as long as I would go with a short story, and this novella just tops that. It could be five times the length but I think it would lose something if I stretched it out that far as that as it all takes place over one day and it was only ever something I wanted to write over three or four days.

Are you influenced by other media like art, film or TV?

Massively. Especially film and photography. I visited many photographic exhibitions while writing Pig Iron and would say it was as influenced by a few key contemporary documentary photographers – Janine Weidel, Don McCullin, Chris Killip, George Plemper – as any author. Music too.

Who are the writers, modern and classic, you go back to time and again, and why?

Knut Hamsun, John Fante, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, DH Lawrence, Daniel Defoe, Roald Dahl, Gordon Burn, Ted Lewis, William Wordsworth, David Peace, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Rechy, Derek Raymond, Denis Johnson, Jean Genet, Henry Miller.

What are you reading at the moment?

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.  Its brilliant.  Also Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, which is a ripping yarn. And Sight & Sound magazine.  I like that.  It’s probably the most intelligently-written magazine out there.

Recommend a book that will surprise us – why should we read it?

imgres-2I read a lot of books about nature, animals, landscape and all things countryside-related. The best I’ve read in recent years of ‘Waterlog’ by Roger Deakin, which is about his love of outdoor swimming in Britain. It only came out in 1999 but is already an undeniable classic in its field. (AFH: see right Mr FH reading it at the moment!)

A big thanks to Ben for answering my questions.

Q&A with James Wheatley, author of Magnificent Joe

Yesterday I told you what I thought of the debut book by James Wheatley.  Magnificent Joe is a touching story of friendship, loyalty and redemption.  I asked James if he would answer some questions and he kindly agreed (only declining to elaborate on one of them!).  Here’s what he had to say:

Tell me a little bit about yourself

I was born in 1980 in the North East, but I’ve moved around a lot. I read English at the University of Sheffield, and a few years later I did an MA in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam. I’ve done various jobs including roofing, labouring, barman, financial and business risk analysis and market research. My hobbies include playing the guitar, boxing and photography. I live in West Yorkshire at present.

In the lead up to publication date are you nervous or excited? Have you got a busy few weeks ahead?

Definitely both nervous and excited. The people who pre-ordered my book online have already started to receive it, so I’m chewing my nails waiting to hear what they think. I’ve got a launch event happening in Sheffield on March 13th at Waterstones… so that’s worrying me at the moment. It’s a while since I’ve had to read in public.

This is your first novel; how did you come to write it?

Magnificent Joe is my first published novel, but it’s never been unusual for me to sit down and write things. I’ve been writing poems, scripts, short stories and song lyrics – among other things – ever since I was little. Magnificent Joe was another one of those  projects where I had an idea that got me excited, so I started typing and eventually it turned into a novel.

Did you find any of the writing process difficult? How do you overcome those hurdles?

The writing process is always difficult in some way, whether I’m fretting about over-arching structural concerns or struggling to get a single sentence to sound right. Sometimes it’s helpful to get a trusted reader to take a look at it, but in the end the only way to overcome is to keep going. Try, fail, try again, fail better – that old chestnut.

There is a lot of emotion in the book; guilt, shame, loneliness, isolation and the meaning of real friendship. Did you find it emotionally exhausting to write? Do you have real experience of the emotions Jim goes through in the book?

I didn’t find it emotionally exhausting because of the emotional content of Magnificent Joe. Maybe I should have, because I have a tendency to stand up and physically act out what I want to happen before I write it down. (And this includes all the dialogue and sound effects, I even do different voices.) But in general it is an emotional experience to take on and carry through a project like a novel.

At first I wasn’t convinced by the 3rd person narrative, but got used to it as the book progressed. What made you decide to mix the narrative rather than keeping Jim as the sole narrator?

Writing in the first person present poses a difficult technical challenge in terms of how to convey things that the narrator is not directly experiencing at that moment in the  narrative. I introduced other narrative points of view to circumvent that difficulty. So there’s an element of simple expediency there, but I don’t view it at as a problem. I think some people will always find changes of narrative voice to be jarring. One reason for this is the tendency to seek a diagetic explanation for the existence of the text itself.  (For instance, the Sherlock Holmes stories exist because Watson tells them. Heart of Darkness exists because Marlow sat aboard the Nellie and told the story.) This expectation can be confounded when other narrative points of view appear. But in reality, every reader knows that the whole thing was made up by an author. So it doesn’t really bother me to put in passages that appear to come from outside, because it all comes from outside.

The first part of the book skips back and forth in time, why did you decide on this structure rather than a more linear one?

A linear structure would not have been an effective way of plotting this novel. And I like the idea of moving around in time. I also like the idea that there are readers who won’t like the changes in time and narrative point of view.

There is a real sense of place in Magnificent Joe. Did you base the village where Jim lives on somewhere you are familiar with?

To some extent, yes. There are bits of a number of places – all over the country – that I used as basis for the geography of the village.

Could this story have taken place anywhere in the UK or was it important to you to have set it in the North East? If so, why?

I think a similar story could have taken place anywhere. In fact, there are similar stories set in other places. I wanted it to happen in the North East because that was part of the voice I heard.

Did you have to do much research for the book e.g into learning difficulties?

I do research for some projects, but not this one in any big way. In this instance, the idea of research and getting things ‘correct’ just didn’t interest me that much. I may have been reacting against the idea that because the book deals with some ‘issues’ that I have a responsibility to treat them accurately. I don’t. I’m a fiction writer and I can write whatever I feel like writing. Anyway, there are no characters in that book who would talk about the ‘issues’ in a politically correct, researched kind of speech, so it would have been pointless.

The main event in the story stems from small community small-mindedness and ignorance, are you making a statement about inequalities and prejudices in wider society with this book?

The idea that our most vulnerable people often receive the most brutal treatment is a pretty common one in all kinds of fiction. So I can’t claim to be making any kind of cutting statement there. But social expectations, group tyranny, intolerance etc… do anger me, so that’s in there somewhere. But I want to say that I think MJ also reflects – though perhaps in a more muted way – some of the positive aspects of community. And, look, people are not necessarily going to be ignorant and small-minded just because they live in a pit village. There are good, conscientious people in this book just as there are in life.

I know you are a musician too, does music influence your writing at all? If so, how? Are you influenced by other media such as film/tv/art?

I think I’ve been described as a musician because I happened to mention once that I play guitar and that at one point in my life I was in gigging bands. I’m not sure that ‘musician’ is the best way of describing me now, although I still play every day just for personal pleasure. I don’t know if music directly influences my writing. I think it would be more accurate that I influence my music and my writing. I’m very interested in sound, the perception of sound and evocation through sonic effect. I think that comes through in both my writing and in the way I play my guitar. (And in the music that I do still sometimes write.)

How much of you is there in Magnificent Joe, is it at all autobiographical?

It’s not even mostly autobiographical. Obviously I’ve used evidence from life, but it’s a fictional story. As usual, some aspects of some of the characters are based on people I’ve met. Some of the places and events are based on things I’ve seen and heard. But in the end, I made it all up. That’s my job.

I listened to the interview for your publisher so I know you are writing your second book, can you give me a rough idea what it is about? (Interview with James Wheatley)

No. 😀

Who are the writers, modern and classic, you go back to time and again?

I’ve been devouring James Ellroy recently. I love it. I find the brutal racism and homophobia of his characters to be absolutely hilarious, although I’m sure some others find it a bit rich. With Ellroy, you’re never quite sure whether you’re dealing with a vicious, far-right lunatic or a fucking genius. (AFH: I told James I thought Ellroy was a bit of both!) Also, I think his prose style is almost poetic in its near-perfect unity of sense and form. In terms of repeat reads, it’s poets: William Blake, Barry MacSweeney, WS Graham, August Kleinzahler.

Recommend a book that will surprise me – why should I read it?

Try The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by August Kleinzahler. One of my favourite collections of poetry of all time. It’s just dead good.

Thank you to James for answering nearly(!) all my questions.  Magnificent Joe was published yesterday by One World Publications.